Monday, December 15, 2014

Owning Technology You Don't Understand - or Can Afford

Fancy technology like air suspension sounds really cool, until it breaks out of warranty.

We live in a highly technological society, and one in which technology changes rapidly. What was true five years ago is often wrong today, in terms of car care, computers, cell phones, or whatever.  Just keeping up with it all is often very difficult to do.

And yet, to thrive in our economy, you may need a car, a phone, and a computer, of some sort or another, as you need to get around and communicate.   However, this doesn't necessarily mean you need a new Mercedes, a new iPhone, and a MacBook, just to get by.

And if you own a lot of sophisticated technology, it can be a nightmare when it breaks down, as you likely won't have the sophistication and skill to repair it, and thus you are at the mercy of others-with-knowledge, and have to pay whatever it is they quote you.

Why anyone would willingly place themselves in such a position of vulnerability is beyond me.  Why get into a situation where you are dependent on others, when you don't need to be?

Cheaper, simpler tech is easier to repair - or can just be discarded when it breaks - placing the consumer in a better position of power.

When we had a motor home and later, a large boat, I felt this way.  Our present small RV is so small, I can push it myself, and if it breaks, I can repair it myself, using parts from Wal-Mart or NAPA.  Our smaller boat, I could tow behind our pickup truck, and work on in my garage.

When we went larger, things got more problematic.  Some large motor homes are so big that when you get something as simple as a flat tire, you have to hire someone to come to you and change it - the same people who change tires on trucks.   When you are helpless as a weak kitten and the only tool in your toolbox is a checkbook, well, you get hosed - a lot.

Our big boat was very complex, and its many systems broke and broke often.  It had a generator, radar, a sophisticated sonar system, and a very complex fuel injection and fresh water cooling system, which was "state of the art" but unfamiliar to most boat mechanics.  Even taking the boat out of the water required a forklift or crane, and most companies charged $100 or more for this service.  A boat trailer looked a lot more attractive at that point (as well as a simpler boat with less accessories on it).

The smaller boat and smaller RV are cheaper, too.  So if they break, you can afford to walk away from them, if they would cost thousands to fix.  Just junk it and move on - you can afford to do that.

It is tempting to buy a lot of expensive high-end equipment, as it can be bought "on time" for low, low monthly payments.  But unless you are prepared to make these payments perpetually, and constantly trade-in and trade-up to newer and newer equipment, eventually, you will be in a situation where this machinery breaks, and you are largely helpless to repair it, unless you are an Engineer.

The answer, I think, is twofold.  First, try not to own technology you don't understand.  This often means educating yourself about technology, as the technology advances and even "simple" devices in our economy are very complex.   Ignorance is never a good option.

Second, buy as little technology as you need.   While having a luxury SUV with all the electronic gadgets on it might sound cool, that V-8 engine and air-suspension will be more difficult to repair down the road.  Having the smaller six and standard suspension, in retrospect, end up being better choices, even if they don't give you bragging rights early-on.

Taking the first as an example, a commenter posts on CNN that they hated their Nissan Pathfinder as after a decade of use, they took it to the dealer and was charged $850 to replace "the evaporative emissions canister - whatever that is!"   Note how the commenter seems to take pride in their ignorance.   And I am sure that this person probably commenting from a smart phone, where they could just ask Siri "What is an evaporative emissions canister?" - and probably found one for a lot less than $850, online.

(The Evap Emissions Canister condenses gas fumes from your tank, so they can be burned in the engine.  It actually saves gas, as well as reducing smog.   They are not hard to replace, but they rarely break.   However, a technician could be confused by something as simple as a loose gas cap, which would generate a "evap emissions large leak" error message.  Unless the hose connections broke off the canister, they rarely need to be replaced.   And one can be had in a junkyard for $50 and replaced in 20 minutes with simple hand tools.   In this instance, ignorance costs $800.   You can put a dollar amount on it!).

As an example of the second answer, a friend of mine has a Mercedes wagon.  It has close to 200,000 miles on it, and frankly, it has maybe about 50,000 miles of service left in it.  The air suspension (rear only, thank God) went bad, and a local mechanic wanted $2500 per side to fix it.   This for a car with a book value of $5000 or less.   Self-leveling air suspension sounds like fun, until it goes wrong, and then you realize you wish you had regular springs instead.

We find an independent mechanic who will install a new air spring for $250 labor, provided we order the spring online.  I find it online for $350 and order it.   We save a lot of money - but the entire job would be unnecessary if the car simply had a normal suspension.  My cheap-ass pickup truck has regular springs and shock absorbers - about as simple as a brick, easy to repair and they rarely break.

Complexity sounds like fun when you buy it.   After all, the gadgets on a Mercedes or a BMW do sound cool, don't they?   But these things get expensive to fix, down the road, which means you either have to keep buying new cars all the time, or spend a fortune trying to fix the toys as they break.   Sometimes less is more and in fact, most times it is. 

And if you do not have the inclination, skill, tools, and knowledge to fix things like this - why keep buying them?

Seems like a pretty simple deal, don't it?  Don't buy stuff you don't understand - or at the very least, buy as little as possible.   You will be better off, less stressed, and save a lot of money.   You will also be empowered as well.